Orioles' spring is homeless horror

Ken Rosenthal

March 26, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

The Orioles are near the end of their breathless search for a permanent spring training home, but if it's congratulations they're seeking, they're a little late.

Since 1985, seven clubs have moved into new state-of-the-art training facilities in Florida. During that time, the Orioles evolved from their prison-like conditions in Miami to this year's fiasco on wheels.

In short, it's been quite an embarrassing run for an organization that draws considerable pride from its attention to detail. And the sad truth is, it's not over yet.

Even if the Orioles wind up in Naples, Fla., by 1993, they'll still have to figure out a way to get through next spring without staging another pathetic sequel to Bingo Long's Traveling All-Stars.

Their current predicament offers this comforting notion: If the club gets off to a slow start, or begins dragging in August, management might be as guilty as the players.

By the time they're through, the Orioles will have visited 14 Florida cities, traveling a minimum of 20 minutes even for "home" games at the White Sox's park in Sarasota or the Pirates' stadium in Bradenton.

Oh, the complaints have been minimal, and manager Frank Robinson has adjusted as well as possible, allowing players to remain at the club's Twin Lakes Parks facility when they're not scheduled to appear in games.

But tomorrow the Orioles enter the final stage of this lunacy, moving from the west coast to the east for their final nine games before heading north -- where they'll play two more exhibitions in Washington, D.C.

Jeff Ballard calls the schedule "a joke." Bill Ripken says it's "brutal." Others are more upbeat -- Gregg Olson prefers the current setup to Miami -- but this is a debate that shouldn't even be taking place.

Club president Larry Lucchino says the team might play games in either Bradenton or St. Petersburg next year, and (gasp!) he won't rule out Miami. Naples might have been ready if USF&G hadn't withdrawn its financing. Considering everything else, that's almost incidental.

Frankly, the entire matter could be easily dismissed if it was simply a case of high-salaried players moaning over petty inconveniences. But Orioles fans have been cheated as well, especially during the last several years.

Miami Stadium was not the place to anchor a spring training vacation -- the neighborhood was too dangerous. Twin Lakes is fan-friendly, but it's not where the Orioles play games. Hence, this year's Tour de Florida -- perfect for the kids.

To truly experience spring training, it's best to visit another camp. The Detroit Tigers have trained in Lakeland 45 years. Thousands of Michigan residents descend every spring. The two Detroit newspapers fly down newspapers to sell at the park each day.

The disgraceful thing about the Orioles' quest to achieve such an atmosphere is that it began in 1984. The club nearly had a deal with Melbourne, Fla., in 1987, but late owner Edward Bennett Williams thought the location too remote.

Melbourne is an hour above Vero Beach, the northernmost training site on the east coast, and 90 minutes from Kissimee, the closest central site. The Orioles didn't have it much better in Miami -- three teams within 90 minutes -- but Williams and Lucchino were fond of that city.

The stadium facilities were inadequate.

But the restaurants couldn't be beat.

In February 1989, Lucchino said a new spring home was "a high priority, and we're redoubling our efforts." Today he claims the club was distracted by the planning of its new downtown stadium. But the White Sox somehow juggled the two issues, settling both within the past three years.

Now the Orioles are looking at a 310-acre site in Naples, and it surely will be grand if Florida Rock, a supplier of construction materials, indeed spends a reported $15-$18 million to build a full-service facility.

But Naples, as the southernmost site on the west coast, wouldn't exactly be in the thick of things -- unless the Red Sox carry out their threat to move nearby, putting five clubs within a 90-minute drive (including the Yankees in Fort Lauderdale).

That would still leave the future of Twin Lakes Park in question, but enough already. The matter should have been settled long ago, when small Florida towns and real-estate developers were begging to go major league.

Seven clubs went first-class.

The Orioles rode the bus.

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